Sun, Jul 12, 2020

Flesh and Spirit

Duration:13 mins 58 secs

Please forgive me…

but I’m going to start by talking again about Aedan.

Maybe it’s simply puppy-parent pride;

or maybe it’s a lack of sleep that’s seriously curtailing my creativity.

As I said last week, he has a gentle and slightly timid nature…

and he’s lovely and sweet––most of the time.

But he is an Irish Wolfhound puppy.

At three months of age, he’s about the size of a Border Collie.

Three months from now, he’ll be double that size.

At about one year he’ll be around one metre tall at the shoulder…

about two metres in length…

and weigh seventy-five kilograms or more.

Their growth rate is astonishing.

The good part of that is it means he sleeps a lot.

And he sleeps very deeply––

which is great, apart from the snoring.

But, when he’s not sleeping, he’s a typically curious and mischievous puppy––

manic, even––

but with twice the size and twice the strength.

So, we have to work hard to try to shape his character;

to curb things that could be a problem when he’s older—

like biting…

or jumping up…

or helping him to learn that manic playtime is not when Natasha has just gone to bed.

We’re trying to ignore the inappropriate behaviour––

while praising and rewarding the behaviour that we want to encourage––

relying on the fact that Wolfhounds are very keen to please.

But it’s not easy trying to shape and mould his instincts;

and helping him to learn what it means to fit in with a new pack.


In last Sunday’s reading…

Paul constructed an elaborate ‘speech-in-character’.

That is, he wrote from the perspective of a Gentile who was attracted to the Hebrew religion––

and who admired it as a means of self-mastery––

but who felt shamed and unworthy.

Indeed, he felt judged by the People of God because he didn’t think that he was good enough;

because he struggled to live up to their expectations…

and, by implication, God’s expectations.

He was torn between wanting to do what he thought that the Hebrew Law expected…

and wanting to fit into his world––

into his family, city, culture, and society.

At the end of last week’s reading, Paul only offered a brief, cryptic rejoinder––

by means of a simple doxology or statement of praise.

Here, in this morning’s reading, he crafts a lengthier response.

Paul begins by reassuring him: 

don’t worry about trying to fit in––

and always feeling unworthy and judged––

simply don’t.

Because you don’t have to.

You aren’t being judged or condemned.

Because “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free”.

It’s a somewhat convoluted sentence––

the sort of thing that Paul is very fond of––

but his point seems to be that ‘you are set free because of the Spirit of life that was at work in Christ’.

In other words, through his faithfulness, Christ has fulfilled the purpose of the Hebrew Law––

remember: not Law understood as a set of rules that had to be kept…

in order for someone to be acceptable or accepted;

but, rather, understood as a set of responsibilities that constitute one side of a relationship.

Paul asserts that Christ was truly faithful.

In a way that no one before or since has ever been.

And, at least as far as the Gentiles are concerned, he rendered the law redundant…

or obsolete.

So, trying to follow the Law––

taking on those responsibilities for yourself––

is superfluous.

Instead, those of us–– 

who are not Hebrews–– 

can share in Christ’s faithfulness by means of the Spirit.

But that doesn’t mean that we can live however we want;

or do whatever we like.

Borrowing, again, from the ‘tragic soliloquy’ genre––

which he used in that ‘speech-in-character’––

Paul presents a practical dichotomy…

contrasting “Flesh” and “Spirit”.

“Flesh”, here, operates in much the same way that “Sin” did in that soliloquy.

It’s an external force––

a demonic power––

seeking to control them.

And he links this to the ‘mind’––

which, in this world, was not the seat of logical thought but the volition or will.

He’s describing two ways of being.

Two ways of operating.

Two outlooks or dispositions.

“Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace”.

In a sense, for Paul, it’s a contrast between a disposition focussed on anti-social vices;

versus one focussed on social virtues.

When our disposition, will, or way of life is focussed on us, selfishly…

when we operate out of guilt, and fear, and hate…

we only propagate more selfishness, guilt, fear, and hate…

which only leads to physical, emotional, and social death.

This is not the way of God.

But, by contrast, when our disposition, will, or way of life is altruistically focussed––

on love, peace, hope, joy, and ‘the good’––

then we cannot but help to propagate more love, peace, hope, joy, and good…

and, in the end, this only enhances and creates life.

For us and for others.

This is the way of God

These are the two ways of being that Paul describes here.

But, in keeping with his first-century worldview,

Paul understands it as two spiritual forces possessing the person…

battling for control.

In a world that saw character as fixed and finite––

determined by where you were born;

into which family;

which gender;

and according to the way that you looked––

for there to be any change in behaviour…

it had to be because there was another person present…


controlling what you did.

That was how ‘Sin’ was understood by the fictive character in last week’s soliloquy.

Here, Paul suggests that…

for those who are living under the influence of Christ, the Spirit of God is now indwelling them…

or, if you like, possessing them.

And these two powers…

these two forces…

are battling for control.

In a sense, what Paul is suggesting here is very akin to an old Cherokee parable:

There was an old man, 

speaking to his grandson who had been hurt…

and who was angry and filled with hate.

“A fight is going on inside meç, the grandfather said.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. 

One is evil––

he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. 

The other is good––

he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. 

The same fight is going on inside you––

and inside every other person, too”.

The grandson thought about it for a minute, and then asked his grandfather, 

“Which wolf will win?”

The old man replied, “The one you feed”.


Paul may have seen it as a battle for control between two occupying spirits;

American Indians may have thought of it as two wolves;

and we might think of it as a conflict between different aspects of our psyches…

but the result is the same:

who we are––

who we will be––

depends on which one we feed.


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